True Grit (2010): United States – directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some violence, including a graphic moment, some language, intense thematic material
True Grit begins in a West that’s on the verge of not being so wild, and climaxes in something much less visceral, almost spiritual. One might not be able to ever peg down a genre that the Coen Brothers can claim, but it sure is easy to tell if a film belongs to them or not. True Grit most certainly does.
The material sounds dirty and dark, a remake (or adaptation) of the same source material used by the 1969 film that guilted the Academy into finally giving John Wayne an Oscar. One might expect this 2010 update to be more in line with No Country for Old Men than Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? [review here], but the opposite is actually true. True Grit is funny, downright enjoyable, and chock full of the same bizarre characters that makes Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? so memorable. While perhaps lacking in some of the depth and darkness that characterizes their best films, it is more audience friendly and easier to enjoy.
The film opens with young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, in a remarkably assured feature film debut) settling the affairs of her recently deceased father. He was killed by the cowardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a mean-spirited outlaw. Mattie is a mere 14 years old, but her brother is younger still and her mother is stricken with grief and unable to help. So it is her task to take the train from Arkansas to the small town where her father was shot, and hire someone to track down Tom Chaney.
Her first order of business is to raise money to put a large enough price on Chaney’s head. After an initial night in the casket-maker’s abode, with three fresh corpses, the plucky youngster takes it up with the local merchant who sold her father some ponies before he was shot. After some impressive haggling, and a multitude of threats using her family’s lawyer in Arkansas, she manages to retrieve enough money to begin. She then resolves to find the orneriest Marshall around in order to bring Chaney to justice.
The first time Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is shown, he’s in a courtroom defending himself. He has shot several more men in a recent incident, and has trouble providing the details. He has a history of shooting plenty of men, often without sufficient cause. That’s what makes him the orneriest Marshall around. That, and the whiskey.
There’s another party involved, one LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who has been tracking Chaney through multiple states and a variety of names. He wants to take him back to Texas for the shooting of a Senator, but Mattie needs him hung for killing her father. Eventually this odd trio sets out together, Mattie forcing them to take her along with the use of her quick tongue, and more threats of her lawyer.
Their adventures are best experienced by watching the film, as the Coen Brothers can tell a tale like few others. Along the way are a number of odd birds, including a traveling doctor who wears a bear as a coat, a Native American who takes possession of recently deceased corpses to sell for parts, and a variety of unsavory criminals. The leader of these criminals is Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, so filthy he’s hardly recognizable). He, too, is unsavory, but possesses a sense of honor that few of the petty thieves can manage.
One of the highlights of the film is the unique setting. In town the West is just as it should have been toward the twilight years of the 19th century. It is dirty, dusty, and rowdy, but there are the beginnings of order and progress. There’s a judge, presiding over a trial, and lawyers who know how to argue and debate. Lawyers, more than gunslingers, are feared in parts of the town. Progress is an infant here, making the setting seem real like it never has before. At the same time, the townspeople are steeped in religious tradition. Hymns fill the soundtrack, and people (and the film) quote the Bible regularly. It doesn’t hurt that the legendary Roger Deakins was responsible for the cinematography.
Then the trio sets out into the wilderness, into Indian territory, and entropy sets in at an astonishing rate. Many of the Coen Brother’s films have this same arc, a progression from order into chaos, and True Grit is no exception. By the end of their adventure the scenery is almost ghostlike, and characters are acting in ways that would not have been imaginable at the beginning of the film. They have entered an almost spiritual realm, one nearly as abstract as the dirty town is real.
But this treads into deep water, themes that would take a full essay to explore in the Coen’s films. What makes True Grit so much fun is the dialogue, the characters, and a sense of unease, the idea that the audience isn’t quite sure what’s going to happen next. Or, if they manage to guess the next plot twist (or are familiar with the story), they won’t be able to guess quite how it happens. Bridges is great, snarling through a mangy beard and thick layers of dirt. In him, the film says, the “love of decency does not abide.” Hailee, too, is a standout. From the beginning it is clear she represents America’s future, someone for whom the American way is the idea that if you buy something, you get it your way. This concept, too, devolves as the film nears complete chaos.
One of the joys of True Grit, and some of their other work, is the ability to enjoy it on a number of levels. It is a fun movie, with fascinating characters reminiscent of old Hollywood classics. There are moments of brutality that are surprisingly raw, and some of the funniest moments in any film this year. At the same time, it’s possible to dissect the film and dig deeper to uncover some of the Coen Brother’s underlying themes that resonate through many of their films. And, while not as powerful as Fargo or No Country For Old Men, True Grit certainly ranks near the top of the Coen filmography, alongside Blood Simple or Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?